The Berber Identity Movement and the Challenge to North African States

[ Middle Eastern Studies ]

The Berber Identity Movement and the Challenge to North African States

By Bruce Maddy-Weitzman

The first full-length treatment of the emergence of the modern Berber identity movement in North Africa and the Berber diaspora, the challenges it poses to Moroccan and Algerian authorities and to competing Islamist movements, and their responses to it.

May 2011


33% website discount price


6 x 9 | 304 pp. | 2 maps

ISBN: 978-0-292-72587-4


33% website discount price

This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.


6 x 9 | 304 pp. | 2 maps

ISBN: 978-0-292-74401-1

Like many indigenous groups that have endured centuries of subordination, the Berber/Amazigh peoples of North Africa are demanding linguistic and cultural recognition and the redressing of injustices. Indeed, the movement seeks nothing less than a refashioning of the identity of North African states, a rewriting of their history, and a fundamental change in the basis of collective life. In so doing, it poses a challenge to the existing political and sociocultural orders in Morocco and Algeria, while serving as an important counterpoint to the oppositionist Islamist current.

This is the first book-length study to analyze the rise of the modern ethnocultural Berber/Amazigh movement in North Africa and the Berber diaspora. Bruce Maddy-Weitzman begins by tracing North African history from the perspective of its indigenous Berber inhabitants and their interactions with more powerful societies, from Hellenic and Roman times, through a millennium of Islam, to the era of Western colonialism. He then concentrates on the marginalization and eventual reemergence of the Berber question in independent Algeria and Morocco, against a background of the growing crisis of regime legitimacy in each country. His investigation illuminates many issues, including the fashioning of official national narratives and policies aimed at subordinating Berbers in an Arab nationalist and Islamic-centered universe; the emergence of a counter-movement promoting an expansive Berber "imagining" that emphasizes the rights of minority groups and indigenous peoples; and the international aspects of modern Berberism.

  • Note on Transcription and Terminology
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Part I. Entering History
    • Chapter One. Origins and Conquests: Africa, the Mediterranean Basin, Arabia
    • Chapter Two. The Colonial Era
  • Part II. Independence, Marginalization, and Berber Reimagining
    • Chapter Three. Morocco and Algeria: State Consolidation and Berber "Otherness"
    • Chapter Four. Algerian Strife, Moroccan Homeopathy, and the Emergence of the Amazigh Movement
  • Part III. Reentering History in the New Millennium
    • Chapter Five. Berber Identity and the International Arena
    • Chapter Six. Mohamed VI's Morocco and the Amazigh Movement
    • Chapter Seven. Bouteflika's Algeria and Kabyle Alienation
  • Conclusion: Whither the State, Whither the Berbers?
  • Notes
  • Sources
  • Index

The Maghrib i.e., the Islamic "West," roughly encompassing the present territories of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Mauritania in Northwest Africa has, as L. Carl Brown reminds us, long been recognized by historians and social scientists as a useful unit of analysis. It was there that an "imprint of geography with history, terrain with theology," produced a distinct mix of political, social, cultural, and linguistic attributes that marked it off from the Mashriq (the Arab-Islamic "East"), Africa south of the Sahara, and the northern Mediterranean littoral. Central to this mix since the beginning of recorded history have been its native Berber-speaking peoples. To Muslims from the East, as Fatima Mernissi points out, the Islamic West has always had the image as being "strange" (gharb) or "foreign" (gharib), which she attributes in part to its Berber heritage. Even today, following decolonization, decades of state centralization, and concerted Arabization policies, North Africa's berberité is not just about heritage and folklore: Berber speakers are commonly said to constitute approximately 40–45 percent of the population in Morocco, 20–25 percent in Algeria, and 8–9 percent in Libya, albeit only 1 percent in Tunisia. In recent years, other scholars have also reminded us of what perhaps should have been obvious. The Maghrib's Berber element, declared anthropologist David M. Hart, in a pithily titled article, "Scratch a Moroccan, Find a Berber," formed the basis of "the whole North African edifice," and was not merely a residue and thus neatly consignable to state-sponsored folklore festivals, as both Western modernization theorists and an earlier generation of Maghribi nationalists, inspired by the notions of Islamic reform and Arabism, had surmised. In contrast with the bulk of Arab and Islamic writers, the Algerian liberal Islamic philosopher Mohamed Arkoun acknowledged, as Hart did, the underlying Berber ethnicity and culture of North African societies.

The point about Berber centrality to North African history and society seems so obvious that one may wonder why it needs stating: after all, what is the history of a region if not the history of the people who lived there? But in the case of the Berbers, the matter is not so simple. Based on scanty prehistoric evidence, their collective, tribe-centered existence as speakers of varieties of a common language can be no more than a reasonable presumption. The varieties of their language have been transmitted, until recently, almost exclusively orally, and their history was traditionally written from the perspective of others, who usually depicted them as semisavages requiring a civilizing hand. They appear in the Greek and Roman annals under a variety of names, including "Africans," "Numidians," and "Moors," as well as a number of tribal designations, and as, along with others outside the Empire, "barbarians" (barbaroi). As a "Berber" collective, they were first written into the historical record by the chroniclers of the conquering Arab Muslim armies in the seventh century. The Arabic word barbar ("babble noisily," "jabber"), related to barbaroi, was applied to the people whose language seemed so odd, hence the name "Berber." By the medieval period, six centuries hence, the great North African Arab writer Ibn Khaldun had elevated the "Berbers" into a "race" (nation), granting them equal status with the other great nations of the world. Nineteenth-century French colonial administrators and scholars would revive this construct, which had fallen into disuse, in order to distinguish "Berbers" from "Arabs" and thus better entrench their rule. Today, the term is viewed by many Berbers as pejorative and, as their modern ethnonational consciousness deepens, is increasingly being supplanted by "Amazigh" (lit. "free man"; pl. "Imazighen"; f. singular "Tamazight"). "Tamazight" also refers to the Berber language, both specifically to the variant spoken by Middle Atlas Berbers and, nowadays, covering all Berberophones. There are three primary Berber dialects in Morocco, rooted in three distinct regions from south-southeast to north: Tashelhit, spoken by roughly 8 million persons, and Tamazight and Tarrifit, each spoken by approximately 3 million persons. Algeria has two primary versions and four smaller ones: Taqbaylit, from the Kabylie region, spoken by 5 million persons; Chaoui, from the Aures region southeast of Kabylie, the language of 2 million persons; Tamzabit, of the 200,000 Ibadi Muslims of the Mzab valley in the south around Ghardaia; Znati, the dialect of 150,000 persons in the Touat-Gourara area in the country's southwest; Tachenouit, in the Chenoua and Zaccar Mountains west of Algiers, spoken by 100,000; and Tamesheq, the dialect of Algeria's approximately 100,000 traditionally nomadic Touaregs of the far south (more than a million Touaregs live in adjacent Mali and Niger). These numerous dialects, as well as those spoken in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt's Siwa oasis, are generally understood to be variants of a single language, which belongs to the family of Afro-Asiatic (previously classified as Hamito-Semitic) languages.

Some modern-day Amazigh militants take great umbrage not only with the term "Berber," but with "Maghrib" as well, viewing them, not wholly unreasonably, as one more indication that their status is politically, socially, culturally, and historically subordinate. Their reaction is even more forceful when "Maghrib" is joined together with "Arab," a term given institutional expression in 1989 with the establishment of the five-member "Arab Maghrib Union" (ittihad al-maghrib al-`arabi), encompassing Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Mauritania. The Amazigh Culture Movement's own term of choice is "Tamazgha," defined as the landmass which stretches westward across North Africa from the Siwa oasis in Egypt's Western Desert to the Atlantic Ocean, extending to include the Canary Islands, and encompassing much of the Sahel lands as well.

However special they considered the Berbers, Ibn Khaldun and the French colonialist administrators, and historians who would follow in Ibn Khaldun's footsteps half a millennium later, were especially exercised by the failure of the Maghrib region to develop as a durable social and political center over the longue durée. The reason for this, Robert Montagne, Charles-André Julien, and others believed, was the Berbers' innate rebellious and anarchical tendencies, which repeatedly threatened settled society. But these tendencies, rooted in the particularism of tribe and village, also were believed to give the Berbers their inner essence in the face of more powerful conquering civilizations. This type of analysis, emphasizing overarching metahistorical themes and such problematic notions as "national character," or even the somewhat less problematic concept of mentalité, is largely passé today, as it appears reductionist and tends also to etch in stone the differences between groups. The considerable merits of French ethnographic and historical work notwithstanding, the marriage of scholarship to the colonialist agenda, particularly the reification of the Berber "essence" in order to distinguish "good" Berbers from "recalcitrant" Arabs, was clearly a distortion of a much more complex reality. Moreover, it not only failed as a policy but also delegitimized any possibility of Berber specificity within the budding nationalist discourse and praxis.

Modern Arab identity, as propagated first by intellectuals and subsequently, beginning in the interwar period, by nationalist movements throughout the Arabic-speaking world, placed the Arabic language at the center of the project. In Algeria and Morocco, too, beginning in the 1930s, "Arabness" and accompanying links to the Arab-Islamic East developed into a central definitional component of their respective national movements, although not at the expense of the legitimacy of the territorial state as such (as was frequently the case in the Mashriq lands).

In Algeria, the subordination and delegitimation of Berber specificity and agency had first sprouted during the "Berberist crisis" in Algeria in 1949. The episode, however marginal to the overall evolution of the Algerian nationalist movement, starkly illustrated the way in which Berber-Arab ethnic differences could be instrumentalized by rival political currents. Members of the Algerian ulama were especially vehement, harshly condemning the Berber language as inferior, vulgar, and degenerate in comparison to Arabic, the language of God, embodied in the Qur'an (notwithstanding the yawning gap between classical Arabic and spoken Algerian Arabic). This attitude was similar to trends in Europe among the promoters of nationally accepted, "high" written languages, which themselves had to be standardized before claiming their allegedly "natural" authority prescribed by the language ideology most commonly associated with Johann Gottfried Herder. It existed as an undercurrent in Algeria's bitter war for independence between 1954 and 1962, continued to be prevalent after independence, and was part of a wider postcolonial phenomenon in Africa in which marginalized ethnic groups were further subordinated to the visions and policies of newly ruling groups.3 Notwithstanding the profound differences between the Maghrib and sub-Saharan Africa, Maghribi dynamics did run parallel, to some extent, to those farther south. Within the Maghrib, such marginalization occurred not only in Algeria, but also rival Morocco. Ruling groups in both promoted their particular versions of the "state" and the "nation" at the expense of important societal forces. In spite of the polar-opposite nature of the Moroccan and Algerian regimes, central aspects of their respective legitimacy formulas employed during the last fifty years were identical: emphasis on their heroic struggle against colonialism and a broader affinity with Arab nationalism. Thus, throughout the first decades of independence, governments adopted educational and cultural policies designed to make Arabic a fully functioning tool in every aspect of life, which went hand in hand with efforts to attain mass literacy. To that end, the promotion of Arabic as a modern print language was crucial. The prime target of these efforts was the French language, which had struck roots during the colonial era as the language of government and public life. But Tamazight, particularly its Kabyle variety, Taqbaylit, was no less a target, for it had no place in the Algerian leadership's vision for the future. Like its republican counterparts elsewhere, newly independent Algeria placed great emphasis on social engineering, in order to forge an individual and collective persona. The Istiqlal Party aspired to act in a similar fashion in Morocco, but never achieved the requisite hegemony over the political system to do so. Like its fellow monarchies elsewhere in the Middle East, the Moroccan palace acted more as a supreme arbiter over society than as a disruptive, transforming force. But regardless of the differences between the Moroccan and Algerian political systems, Berber aspects of their societies, cultures, and histories were given short shrift, even as the process of state consolidation and economic integration into a single market went forward, inexorably drawing the Berbers themselves into their national orbits.

For a long time, this didn't seem to matter, as the Moroccan sharifian Alaoui monarchy and Algeria's Front de Libération Nationale (FLN)–led single party–army regime battled successfully to attain hegemony at the expense of rival political forces. Morocco's King Hassan II survived (albeit barely) two attempted military coups in the early 1970s and was succeeded after his death in 1999 by his eldest son Mohamed, in a peaceful and orderly manner. Algeria's state-building model appeared to be more successful than Morocco's during the early decades of independence. However, its eventual brutal trial by fire ended up being much worse. Beginning at the end of the 1980s, acute economic distress and social malaise led a portion of the ruling military-bureaucratic elites to attempt a radical and ill-prepared democratic experiment, one that imploded in the early 1990s and resulted in a prolonged and bloody conflict between the authorities and a militant Islamist insurgency, costing an estimated 150,000 deaths and all the attendant damage to the social fabric. But just as the Moroccan monarchy had managed to survive and maintain its hegemony over Moroccan political life, Algeria's ruling military-bureaucratic elites were able to survive the Islamist challenge and renew their authority over Algerian society.

Nonetheless, the saliency of the regimes' legitimacy formula has been eroded with the passage of time and the broader fragmentation of the Arab state system. More specifically, Morocco and Algeria are both characterized by entrenched authoritarian regimes lacking genuine democratic legitimacy, strong Islamist opposition movements and smaller groups that engage in jihadi terrorism, economic systems that have lagged far behind other regions in the increasingly globalized economy, and large youthful populations clamoring for jobs or visas to the West, with resulting migration and social pressures on European countries. Taken together, these challenges pose serious questions regarding the future of their societies, political systems, and even the very nature of their collective identities.

Where do the Berbers fit into the picture? Writing in the early 1970s, Ernest Gellner, who among his myriad pursuits carried out important fieldwork among Moroccan Berber tribes, declared that "in his heart, the Berber knows that God speaks Arabic and modernity speaks French," and dismissed the likelihood that the Berbers might ever develop a more encompassing ethnic identity beyond their particular tribal loyalties within an Islamic milieu. One can infer that for Gellner, the process of modernization would eventually, but inexorably, lead the Berbers to assimilate into those larger frameworks of modern national states colored with an Islamic hue that emerged throughout the Arabic-speaking lands during the twentieth century. From a different angle, while granting them ethnic status, Lawrence Rosen argued quite cogently that ethnicity constituted only part of a Moroccan Berber's social identity, and not necessarily the most important one. Ch. Pellat stated in the authoritative Encyclopaedia of Islam that the Berbers are heterogeneous and historically lacking in all sense of community, thus failing to constitute a truly distinct nation. An American political scientist writing at the end of the 1970s declared unequivocally that the Berbers were well on the way to assimilation within Arab-Muslim nation-states. Two subsequent and important edited collections on the modern Moroccan state barely refer to the Berber populations, let alone present them as significant actors in the wider political and social realms.

However, almost under the radar, new ways of Berber imagining, in the sense used by Benedict Anderson, among segments of their diverse community, and new forms of political, and proto-political, action have emerged in recent decades. The result is the Berber/Amazigh Culture Movement, a transnational phenomenon of ethnocultural assertion that cuts across national boundaries. Berber speakers across North Africa, led by Algerian Kabyles, have taken on many of the attributes of a modern ethnie: "a named unit of population with common ancestry myths and historical memories, elements of shared culture, some links with a historic territory and some measure of solidarity at least among [its] elites."

This should not have been surprising: as we know from Clifford Geertz, Joel Migdal, and others, the process of societal modernization, the move from a segmented to an integrated society, is neither unilinear nor unidirectional, and often reinforces and refashions primordial affiliations even as they lose some of their original functions. Indeed, we can see in both Algeria and Morocco that the assertion of "traditional" Berber identity among portions of the Berber populations actually contains elements of a more modern ethnic-type identity. From another angle, and notwithstanding the radically different contexts, a number of attributes of the nation-forming process in Europe among nondominant ethnic groups analyzed by Miroslav Hroch are also recognizable among modern-day Berbers, even while many of the traditional economic, legal, and political functions of the tribe have all but disappeared.

The Berber Culture Movement in North Africa and the Diaspora is an amorphous, many-headed phenomenon with a clear core demand: the recognition by state authorities of the existence of the Amazigh people as a collective, and of the historical and cultural Amazighité of North Africa. The most immediate and concrete manifestations of that recognition would be to make Tamazight an official language equal to Arabic, and to begin redressing the multitude of injustices that have been inflicted on the Berbers over the last half-century, through corrective educational, social, and economic policies. In Algeria, Berber movement demands are more overtly political, the result of decades of tension, punctuated by bouts of overt confrontation between the regime and the territorial and cultural core of resurgent Berberism, Kabylie. In Morocco, the scene has been less confrontational, and less overtly political, but has significantly evolved in that direction in recent years. The socioeconomic component of the new Berberism varies from place to place as well, but clearly cannot be divorced from the other factors driving the movement.

Regardless of the specifics in each country, the Berber Culture Movement is engaged in contentious politics: it wants nothing less than to refashion the identity of North African states, rewrite their history, and fundamentally change the basis of collective life there. As with other minority movements worldwide, the Amazigh Culture Movement trumpets the importance of genuine political democracy and cultural pluralism. In the Amazigh case, the existing bogeyman, i.e., the prevailing order that needs to be combated, is based on a combination of what they view as Arab-Islamic and Jacobin-style authoritarianism, manifested in both Islamist and more secular nationalist varieties.

To be sure, Berberism, in both its specific territorial-state context and its broader pan-Berber one, poses no current threat to the territorial integrity of any of the Maghrib states. Nor does it pose any serious threat to ruling elites, which themselves contain important Berber components. Its ability as a social movement to engage in the important task of resource mobilization has begun to jell, but its capacity to sustain and transform remains an open question. In 1980 and 2001, Kabylie experienced two important "episodes of contention," a notion that, according to social movement theorists, contains some combination of mobilization, identity shift, and polarization. One may ask whether the result of these episodes was what is known in the literature as a "threshold crossing," namely a cognitive conversion into a more self-conscious and determined political community by the public being targeted by the particular movement, in this case, the Kabyles. Moroccan Berbers are operating in a different context, but the signs of activism, particularly among students, are manifest, and have been unintentionally reinforced by the state's recognition of the movement's potentially subversive capacity.

Berberists may identify viscerally with the Kurds, especially those of Iraq, who after a long trail of tears and tribulations have attained many of the attributes of collective national revival, culturally and politically. They also gaze with great interest toward Spain's Catalonia region, their exemplar of an ethnonational community's successful, peaceful attainment of linguistic, cultural, and administrative autonomy. Achievements of Basque nationalists in introducing the Basque language, Euskara, into the public sphere in Spain's Basque region have also been noted as worthy of emulation. In comparison to these three cases, Berberists lag far behind. Nonetheless, an explicitly Amazigh identity movement, backed by and intertwined with elements of the Berber Diaspora, has become part of the larger political and social spectrums in North Africa's two leading countries. Berberism has also begun to reverberate in Libya. The Touareg of the Sahel countries, particularly Niger and Mali, have been in open, often violent conflict with their central governments for years. They are outside the scope of this study, but they too have not been entirely untouched by the modern Berberist current.

Modern Berber identity has multiple strands, from the illiterate female keeper of the household in the southeast of Morocco, to the rugged Kabylian villager in Algeria, to the Touareg camel-driving nomad, to the Paris-based intellectual. These strands are so diverse that one may even ask if there is anything at all that unites them. This study will seek to analyze the underpinnings and the dynamics, both within particular Berber communities and between them and state authorities, that resulted in the emergence of a modern Berber identity movement in the decades after independence, just when many thought that Berber culture and specificity could be consigned to the museum. An underlying assumption of this analysis is that modern Berber identity as an idea and, increasingly, as a movement serves as a tangible counterpoint to both state-dominated political and social life and opposition Islamist currents. The interaction of this evolving, ethnic-type identity with other forms of collective affiliation tribal, national, and religious will be an important component of state-society relations in Morocco and Algeria for years to come, as governments, ruling elites, and the populace at large struggle to come to grips with myriad economic, political, and sociocultural pressures a half-century after achieving independence.

By Bruce Maddy-Weitzman

Bruce Maddy-Weitzman is Senior Research Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University. He is the author of The Crystallization of the Arab State System, 1945–1954 and the coeditor of The Maghrib in the New Century: Identity, Religion, and Politics; The Camp David Summit—What Went Wrong?; and Religious Radicalism in the Greater Middle East. He also edited the last seven volumes of the Middle East Contemporary Survey.

Awarded the L.Carl Brown Prize by the American Institute for Maghrib Studies, 2013.